Social, Economic, & Political Leadership — Charleston, SC

Breaking Barriers

In 1982, Travis Ascue competed as the first African American athlete in the South Carolina Independent School Athletic Association. But this story is not about what Travis did, this story is about who he was. 

Integration in the South was not as rapid or readily accepted in 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson asked for, and received, the most comprehensive civil-rights act to date. The Civil Rights Act specifically prohibited discrimination in voting, education, and the use of public facilities. For the first time since the Supreme Court ruled on segregation in public schools in 1954, the federal government had a means of enforcing desegregation; Title VI of the act barred the use of federal funds for segregated programs and schools. Instantly, public schools were desegregated, leading to an influx of private schools where the decision on who could attend rested at the discretion of the school staff, directed by a Board of Directors. Often these boards were comprised of all-white members. 

In the early 1980’s the students, faculty and board of directors at East Cooper School in Mt. Pleasant, SC were not only ready to accept students of color, but under the leadership of Col. Lawrence McKay Jr., the school’s Headmaster and Tom O’Rourke, the “Coach,” a plan was put in place to actively seek out a strong African American student who could survive and thrive in an atmosphere unlike anything they had ever been a part of. That student was Travis Clay Ascue, eldest son of Pete and Pearl Ascue from Awendaw, SC – proud residents of the 10-mile community. 

As the first African American student in the entire State of South Carolina Independent School system, Travis’s tenure at East Cooper was certainly challenging. Travis was an academically gifted student, fully capable of excelling under the demands of a strong academic institution. However, the arena where Travis did his most meaningful work was not in the classroom, but on the athletic field and in the gym. Travis was a superior athlete. Prior to his enrollment at East Cooper the athletic program was average at best. After his enrollment the school became a title contender. As Travis left the friendly confines of East Cooper, to travel to the gyms and fields of rural South Carolina, the education really began. 

Travis knew that his participation was more of a responsibility than a burden. When faced with overt racism, which happened often, it was Travis who reminded us all that our only goal is to compete in our contests and then return home. He knew, at such a young age, like Jackie Robinson before him, that any outbursts by him, negative comments, or retaliation would only be a setback to what he knew needed to be done. 

Today, in that same private school athletic league virtually every school in the state is comprised of people of all races. Travis’s untimely death in his early twenties from a car accident robbed our community of one of its future leaders, but his lessons will never be forgotten by his classmates, faculty and coaches. We also realized that Travis’s competitors in the rural schools respected not only what Travis did, but how he did it. 

Travis’s tenure at East Cooper was certainly challenging as the first African American student in the entire State of South Carolina Independent School system.

Contributor

Tom O’Rourke

Tom O’Rourke is currently an educator, a parks and recreation consultant, and a speaker. He serves as a Professor of Practice in the PRTM Department at Clemson University. Tom previously served as the Executive Director of the Charleston County Parks & Recreation Commission from 2001-2019, leading the Agency though the largest capital project, budget, and attendance growth in the agency’s history. Recreation is Tom’s profession, but his passion has always been coaching. He has coached State Championship teams and numerous State Qualifying Pole Vaulters, and will serve as the pole vault coach at the new Lucy Beckham High School in Mt. Pleasant. Tom’s start in coaching was at East Cooper School in Mt. Pleasant from 1979-1986, where he coached Travis Ascue.